I recently finished work on the film documentation of The Urban Cloth Project.
Sharon Kallis, Tracy Williams, Mirae Rosner and Rebecca Duncan worked together to make this project happen. It looks at how we can grow and process fibre to make cloth in our own community, and what is involved in the large-scale industrial production of clothing around the world.
Original music composed and performed by Clara Shandler.
The Flax = Food + Fibre Project continued for its second and final year at West Point Grey Community Centre in Vancouver, lead this time by artists Rebecca Graham and Brian Jones. With many participating community members, they further explored the potential of growing flax as a fibre crop in an urban setting. Several grain varieties (oats, wheat and rye) were also grown for Brian to demonstrate Welsh wheat-weaving, an art-form practiced in agricultural communities for centuries. An added benefit was allowing participants to see the actual growing and harvesting of the plants that make up a large part of our western diet.
Rebecca did much to refine the accumulated knowledge for growing and processing flax locally, changing to a different variety (Marilyn) which is much better suited to hand spinning. She also worked to improve the method of retting the harvested plants, in the end producing very fine and beautiful line flax which is now being spun into thread by various members of the local fibre community.
As in the previous year, the project provided many opportunities for celebration and enjoyment throughout the agricultural cycle, from garden work parties, to the harvest festival complete with Morris dancers, to the final “Sit and Spin Social” where the processed flax was spun into thread. See my short documentary of the project here:
Over the past year or so, I have been busy making a number of things both related to fibre arts and to woodworking.
Flax plants ready for harvest.
As part of the Urban Weaver Project’s investigation of growing local cloth, I built some of the equipment necessary in the production of linen. With funds obtained by Penny Coupland from the Vancouver Foundation Neighbourhood Small Grants, and using plans she purchased from The Woolgatherers, (a family business in Wisconsin) I built a flax brake, two scutching knives and two hackles. These are used to extract the long, supple fibres from the stalks of the flax plant, that we had grown locally.
Flax brake (detail)
After flax is harvested, it is left in water or in a damp field to break down through the process of retting, which uses bacteria to dissolve some of the connective proteins and lignans within the plant. The stalks can then be run through the brake, which shatters the pithy core, and allows the remaining outside layers to be separated. The scutching knife helps to remove the last pieces of pith, before the strands are pulled through various sizes of hackles, separating the individual strands, which at this point resemble human hair. From here, the fibres are spun and woven into cloth.
Since ancient times, farm folk would be familiar with these methods and would incorporate the growing of flax into their agricultural cycle, so that most of their clothing needs could be met. Much stronger and longer-lasting that cotton, flax also requires much less water, fertilizer and pesticides. As it can be grown in northern climates, it does not require the shipping and exploitive labour practises used in the production of cotton.
Caitlin ffrench using flax brake
Caitlin ffrench using scutching knife
Caitlin ffrench using hackle
Sharon Kallis spinning flax
Over the past year I have been commissioned to produced several short films documenting the activities of local ecologically minded art collectives. At present, I am working on another group of similar shorts, all with the purpose to highlight the small, but significant activities of grass-roots, community based artists, particularly those that work outside the consumer/gallery model of western art. Most recently, I completed the first of three films that document the CONDUIT project, by the ART IS LAND NETWORK, an artist collective “whose shared connection is the use of natural and repurposed material to engage with the landscape.” The year long project at the DR. SUN YAT SEN PARK in Vancouver, involves three separate groups of artists, working with the public in different ways within this stunning urban park. The first component is called CONTOUR.
Another project that I covered in the past year stems from my previous involvement with URBAN WEAVER, a group formed by Sharon Kallis and Todd DeVries, working out of the McLean Park Field House in East Vancouver. YEAR TWO follows the many projects that the group undertook, including growing and processing flax into linen, traditional Haida cedar weaving, and erosion control methods using culled invasive plant material.
A YEAR AT ABERTHAU follows three artists in a community based project entitled FLAX = FOOD + FIBRE. Artists Caitlin ffrench, Mirae Rosner and Sharon Kallis held numerous public workshops that focused on the growing, processing and spinning of flax, and the ways that this ancient practice spill over into other art forms, including weaving, dance, music, and earth sculpture.
These projects embody a contemporary trend in the arts that highlights local landscapes, skills, and history over the monolithic forces of consumer culture, the international art scene and mainstream media-based culture. Participating in communal, hand-based art forms can be an awakening to another way of living and seeing the world.
Posted in Film
Tagged community art, community dance, documentary film, earth art, ecological art, environmental, flax, invasive species, linen, sustainability, urban farming, Vancouver, weaving